Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 1, 2017

The Accusation, by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith #BookReview

Most so-called publishing sensations are IMO not worth reading, but The Accusation, Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea certainly is.  My edition, published with financial assistance from the UK branch of PEN,gives a brief and circumspect explanation about how it is samizdat literature, smuggled out of North Korea.  For safety’s sake, the author has chosen the pen name ‘Bandi’ meaning ‘firefly’, hoping to shine a light on the world’s most notoriously secretive regime.  (A regime which might now be the trigger for nuclear war).

There are seven stories, all of them set during the rule of Kim Il-sung, grandfather of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un, and each illuminating a different aspect of life in North Korea.  For those of us who grew up reading samizdat from the former Soviet Union, or have read Yan Lianke’s satiric fictions about the Communist regime in China, there is a grim familiarity about it. ‘Record of a Defection’ (1989) depicts one of the worst forms of social control: punishing families and their descendants for petty infringements that happened decades ago.  When the narrator finds a hidden packet of contraceptives he fears his wife’s infidelity, and in a sad parody of official surveillance he spies on her, only to discover that in fact she has been able to access his file and has realised the victimisation that lies in store for any child they might have.  The story relies for effect on the distorted communication between the pair, the narrator’s false assumptions about his wife’s loyalty mirroring the false assumptions that the regime has about his loyalty to the state.  It seems a simple story, but it’s revealing in its depiction of the implacability of a descendant’s position.  It doesn’t matter what the offence was, or how trivial or false it might have been, there is no escape from its effects.

‘City of Specters’ (1993) (sic) reveals the ways in which a citizen can fall foul of the regime.  Han Gyeong-hee has an impeccable record of faithful service and believes herself immune to persecution.  But when her small child develops an aversion to the spectre of Karl Marx in a mega-portrait outside their apartment, she is in a quandary because she’s not getting any sleep and her work will suffer.  Her apartment looks out over the square in Pyongyang where the National Day Celebrations are to be held, and the Party Secretary ensconced in their building takes exception to the curtains she puts up to shield the child’s view, because the blue curtains are not the same as those officially issued and they make her apartment stand out.  There is no place for individuals in this society.  Han Gyeong-hee’s infringement leads to exile for

“Neglecting to educate their son in the proper revolutionary principles, with a negative effect on the National Day ceremony; further, making coarse remarks about the portrait of Karl Marx, the father of communism, and comparing the portrait of our Great Leader to a manhole cover.  The accused are therefore guilty of jeopardising the preservation of our Party’s ideology….” (p. 57)

That’s that.  No opportunity to defend herself, no appeal, and the whole family is condemned.  The speed with which the exile takes place means that their possessions are bundled into a bag by officials, and there is no opportunity to say goodbye.  And we know from the first story that persecution will affect the extended family too.

Disillusionment is a long time coming, for loyal citizens who believed in promises of a better life under communism.  ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ (1993) is the story of a cherished elm tree that grew to maturity while the man who planted it to commemorate the day he joined the party, saw conditions worsen so much that there is not even any firewood for a harsh winter.

The writing style and plot construction is unsophisticated by Western standards – it’s almost childlike if not for the grim subject matter. There are few descriptive flourishes, except to depict the hardships – the paucity of furnishings, the inadequacy of food, the misery of the weather.  The focus is always on the cruel absurdity of the situations that the characters find themselves in, and the difference between how they react internally and when they are under observation by others.   In the story ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ (1993) the emphasis is on how familial duty and the bonds of love can have no importance in this society.  Myeong-chol has been frustrated in his wish to care for his widowed mother for years, and now, denied a travel permit to visit her when she is dying, he cannot even express his grief for fear of sanction:

Myeong-chol longed to let himself sob out loud, to stamp the ground or to shake his fist at the sky.  But, depending on the circumstances, he knew that even crying could be construed as an act of rebellion, for which, in this country, there was only one outcome – a swift and ruthless death.  And so it was the law of the land to smile even when you were racked with pain, to swallow down whatever burned your throat. (p.98)

The motif of the Great Leader’s travel taking precedence over everything else recurs in the story called ‘Pandemonium’ (1995).  The story opens with the shocking image of a small child with a broken leg, her injury sustained at a train station where everyone was herded into a space too small so that the Great Leader could pass by unhindered.

The station itself wasn’t particularly large and was far away from any built-up areas, but it was one at which various branch lines converged, meaning that even a small change in the service was enough to cause a severe backlog.  That would have been bad enough in itself, but as the station had now been completely locked down for thirty-two hours and counting, crowds and confusion were only to be expected.  The would-be passengers had all exhausted whatever provisions they’d bought for the journey, and the scant handful of basic restaurants were unable to meet their demands.  (p.125)

Mrs Oh was on her way to see her pregnant daughter.  Because of the chaos she decided to leave her husband and grandchild behind and chance the travel without a permit, and on her way she was overtaken by the Great Leader’s entourage.  He – taking advantage of a photo opportunity demonstrating how kind-hearted he is – gave her a lift, and she had been mobbed by journalists afterwards and had to record her good fortune for broadcast.  Back home, confronted by the serious injuries of her husband and grandchild, she is overwhelmed by the image of a demon working black magic to conceal the evil mistreatment of his people and to create the deception that everyone is happy.

… thanks to that demon’s sorcery, the people of this land had been living lives turned entirely on their heads, utterly different from the truth. (p.147)

This story includes also a reminder that food is still rationed, a situation that usually only occurs during war time, but is a lifetime situation in North Korea.

These first five stories are the best, IMO, but ‘On Stage (1995)’ and  ‘The Red Mushroom'(1993) are still powerful stories that shine a light on the desperate situation of the ordinary people of North Korea.  It’s a sobering book to read.  One can only hope that people urging military action against the regime realise that those who will suffer most are people just like those in these stories…

Author: Bandi
Title: The Accusation, Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail UK 2017
ISBN: 9781781258712
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea


  1. This sounds fab, but not heard anything about it here. I’ve read several nonfiction books about North Korea but not any fiction. This sounds like a good place to start.

    • It says in the back of the book that there have been stories from North Korea by dissidents who’ve escaped, but this is the first one from inside….

      • Interesting… I wonder how it was smuggled out.

        • It was taken out by someone who was escaping. ‘Bandi’ can’t leave because he has family there…

          • How horrendous… and scary for Bandi. Presumably the punishment would be execution. Have you ever read Barbara Demick’s nonfiction book about North Korea? Posssibly the best nonfiction book I’ve read in 21st century.

            • Wow, that’s high praise. I think I started it and then had to take it back to the library so I didn’t review it. Maybe I should get hold of it again.

              • I thought it was remarkable. She follows 5 different people (I think it’s 5) so you see North Korean society from vastly different angles but there’s a lot of shared experience: the surveillance, the hunger, poverty, fear etc. I learnt a lot from that book; it puts those carefully choreographed images of military might that we see on TV into context.

                • I can second Kim’s recommendation of Nothing To Envy which I read on the basis of her review – a stand-out read.

                • I can see I’ll have to get hold of it…

  2. The level of oppression described seems counter productive. I wonder if it’s caused by each level of ‘management’ needing to demonstrate its authority over the level below.

    • It’s consistent with what I know of surveillance in soviet states. Have you read Stasiland?

      • No. But it brings up the point that poverty under a communist dictatorship is different to poverty under a ‘western’ dictatorship. Rationing V every man for himself

        • If we had a fair system of world trade there wouldn’t be a need for food rationing anywhere.

          • PS I really, really recommend Stasiland. If you read that novel that won the MF, you might think Anna Funder a disappointment. But Stasiland is a book that IMO *everyone* ought to read, especially now when governments all over are telling us that surveillance is for our own good.

            • My next project is to get on nbn, then I’ll start downloading and listening to a better class of audio book. Though not too many at $40 I hope!

              • I have not whinged here about the NBN but just let me say this: make very sure that what you buy is better than what you have. Ours fibre to the street not the home is slower, more unreliable, has more timeouts for loading pages and is infinitely more frustrating not to mention more expensive than what we had before.
                If I didn’t already despise Turnbull for, oh, everything, I would find his lies about his version of the NBN utterly contemptible because he did, actually, unlike the rest of his mob, know what he was dudding us with.
                (Not that I voted for him, I hasten to add).

              • I have the ‘Labor’ version, fibre to the premises, which a workmate across the road also has and it seems to be ok. Was just waiting till I got home to start paying $70-80/month for a service I can’t see myself using for TV/movies at all (or phone). But lots of books!
                In passing, I think we still all secretly believe, certainly journalists still write as though, ‘real’ Malcolm will one day soon slough off his cowardice and return to the middle of the road.

                • Oh yes, friends of ours in a different suburb have had the real NBN for years and it is superfast and totally brilliant.
                  What you may find yourself using it for is iView, to catch up on TV shows you’ve missed. I watch very little TV so I nearly always forget to turn it on if there is something I want to watch, so that’s why I use iView. There is an inexpensive whatsit you can buy to add to your TV and then you can watch it on TV if you don’t like watching it on a computer. (I have a very big computer screen because my eyesight is so poor, I look at most things at 125% not 100%).

  3. This sounds fascinating – will certainly seek it out (just as soon as I’ve finished the extremely intense and distressing book I’m reading about the Holocaust…).

    • Which one are you reading, Kate?

      • The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlmann. Have you read it?

        • Yes… that is a book of monumental power. Such a great author. *frown* That reminds me, he’s due to be bringing out a new one, surely?
          It’s a shame 7 Types of Ambiguity turned out to be a disappointment on TV. That was a great book too.

          • I loved 7 Types but haven’t watched the tv series only because it started in the midst of me being overseas and then moving house! Was going to catch up on Iview but sounds like I should give it a miss!
            I thought he had a new book coming out this year but not sure where I read that…

            • Oh no, don’t miss it because of me… give it a try and see what you think….
              Gosh, travel and a house-move, that’s a lot on your plate.

              • And throw in some uni assessment and I’m basically a mental case! Not getting any reading done :-( but after next week I should have made headway with unpacking, turned in a couple of essays and got my internet access back.

                • Just as well you’re a woman and highly skilled at multi-tasking, eh?

                • Ha! *curls into foetal position in the corner*

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